Milwaukee-Eight – Harley-Davidson’s New Motor

The Milwaukee-Eight? Very few brands enjoy as much recognition as Harley-Davidson. Along with Coca-Cola and Apple, the iconic motorcycle company belongs to an exclusive club of global brands. Ironically, H-D is also one of the most polarizing of motorcycle companies. In one corner are the diehards who rarely consider another motorcycle brand, and in the other are those who snub made-in-Milwaukee products mostly because they perceive them as mechanically ancient. 

There’s nothing new about the huge gap that separates fans and detractors of the Milwaukee brand, but Harley-Davidson has long celebrated that outsider theme while understanding that a time would come when its traditional customer base would have to be renewed. Just how to go about bridging the gap has been one of the most contentious topics at H-D, and with the exception of the V-Rod in the early 2000s, the “go slow” side has dominated the debate. 

The launch of an all-new motor for 2017—called Milwaukee-Eight because of its four-valve heads—isn’t only the next step, but also one of the biggest yet as it brings significant changes to the Harley-Davidson riding experience. Changes traditionalists might not necessarily love, but that the rest of the population probably will. 

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The basic idea is to convince other motorcyclists to seriously consider a Harley-Davidson as their next bike, but without alienating the brand’s core buyer. It’s a very sensitive move and an exercise akin to a high-wire act. 

Harley-Davidson downplays the changes. “The guiding principle behind the Milwaukee-Eight engine was our voice of customer research from every region of the world,” says Scott Miller, Vice-President of Styling and Product Development Strategy. Translated, this means Harley-Davidson asked potential buyers from around the planet—and not just Americans who are still the Motor Company’s biggest market—what they liked and didn’t liked about Harleys. 

In a nutshell, they didn’t like what they perceived as a generally rough around the edges engine, they thought the vibration was just too much at idle and also that the power and torque could be better. They loved the styling, the historical nature of the engine architecture, the sound and the silkiness of the V-Twin at highway speeds. They liked what a Harley already was, but they wished it was a bit more refined. For better or worse, those wishes have now been granted, at least on touring models as only they get the new 107-cubic-inch Milwaukee-Eight for 2017. Touring models also receive all-new suspension front and back for 2017, a less publicized but nonetheless very important upgrade.  

If it wasn’t for the 107 badging and a few telltale signs, like the new shape of the heads, the reduced width of the engine, the more tucked-in rear exhaust pipe or the new shape of the oil radiator cover, the untrained eye would probably have a tough time differentiating a Twin Cam-powered 2016 model from a Milwaukee-Eight-powered 2017. The family resemblance is not coincidental. 

According to Alex Bozmoski, Harley-Davidson Chief Powertrain Engineer, who led the development team, about 20 different engine styles were designed ranging from a throwback Panhead look to an edgy design that could have been right out of a Transformers movie. In the end, conservatism prevailed and although the Milwaukee-Eight is a new motor through and through, its appearance definitely will not shock anyone. It’s all about continuation, not revolution.  

The same is true for the suspension: no one would know it’s all-new just by looking at the bikes. But both the rear shocks and the fork are entirely new designs and considerably improved parts. The new Showa fork uses “dual bending valve technology” while the new emulsion shocks offer a tool-less and wider range of preload adjustment. However, the knob can only be reached after taking off one of the rear bags, also a tool-less operation, if not a practical one for repeated changes. Why not a more accessible design or even electronic adjustment? Harley-Davidson says the investment wasn’t worth it since their customers usually set their suspension once and then leave it alone. Which is actually true for most motorcyclists. 

For owners of a Twin Cam-equipped touring model, the fact that the equivalent 2017 is powered by a completely new motor becomes obvious the instant after the starter is engaged. The very first sign that something major has changed is the clear reduction in primary vibration, which was cut by a whopping 75 per cent. According to the manufacturer, this change was one of the most important and among the most difficult. Not technically: the V-Twin could have easily been made glass-smooth at idle. The difficult part was getting the “right” balance between the traditional engine shake at idle and the smoothness required by potential new customers. 

Worldwide research performed by H-D showed the massive trembling of the rubber-mounted Twin Cam, while very endearing to current customers, spooked potential new ones who asked if that was “normal.” I’m personally a big fan of the traditional profound and heavy pulse the rubber-mounted Twin Cam generates on touring models and, at least on paper, that “75 per cent” seemed like too much of a cut. My initial impression confirmed my fears: at idle and very low revs, say under 2,000 rpm, the Milwaukee-Eight is significantly smoother. I didn’t dislike it, but being used to and actually looking forward to the massive trembling of H-D’s touring models whenever I rode one, I wasn’t sure if I liked the reduced pulse strength either. It didn’t take too long for me to get used to that characteristic of the new motor and even get to the point of appreciating it as it’s only one part of a whole new level of refinement the Milwaukee-Eight offers. 

Everything about the new motor is better, smoother, more sophisticated. Switching back and forth between a 2016 and  2017, I immediately noticed the harder shifts, the greater effort clutch, the louder clunk of gear changes and the large amount of various mechanical noises coming from the Twin Cam versus the Milwaukee-Eight. 

At first, I couldn’t help but wonder if something had been lost, if by refining all of these aspects of the Twin Cam, the very character that made the Harley-Davidson experience so unique hadn’t been diminished too much. 

In a sense, those changes steered Milwaukee’s big twin in the direction of some very refined Japanese big V-Twins like Kawasaki’s 1700 and Yamaha’s 1900… Gasp! 

But, again, I quickly concluded that the new Milwaukee-Eight did indeed still very much offer that special, endearing and unique Harley-Davidson experience, albeit in a noticeably refined way, which, as the hours of seat time accumulated, wasn’t at all unpleasant. I’d even say they did a very good job of getting to that compromise between tradition and refinement necessary to both respect existing customers and welcome new ones. 

In terms of power and torque, there is no question about it: the Milwaukee-Eight 107 is a clear step forward. It’s no powerhouse versus the Twin Cam 103, but the improvement in acceleration and flexibility is undeniable. From the release of the clutch lever until the rev limiter cuts in, there’s more. Not massively more, but enough for a two-to-three bike length advantage from zero to 100 kmh and a one-to-two bike length advantage from 100 to 130 kmh in top gear, according to H-D. 

As far as the Twin-Cooled 114 cubic-inch version of the Milwaukee-Eight powering CVO touring models, it feels exactly like the 107 but offers even better acceleration. There again, the not massively more, but significantly more theme describes pretty well how the 114 feels versus the 107.  

The passage from Twin Cam to Milwaukee-Eight essentially accomplishes the same things as the passage from Evolution to Twin Cam at the end of the 1990s: it broadens the appeal of the Harley-Davidson riding experience while respecting its heritage. It wasn’t easy to do the last time and it’ll ruffle some feathers this time too. 

But in the end, both progress and tradition can be felt when the ride-by-wire throttle of a Milwaukee-Eight is twisted. I liked the Twin Cam in that platform. A lot. The new motor still satisfies me. While it doesn’t tremble to the point of blurring my vision, it still offers a satisfactory level of rumble and shake. 

All that refinement and reduction in mechanical noises have allowed Harley-Davidson to bump the exhaust note a solid notch up, which my ears appreciated a lot. More than ever, a louder exhaust is simply unnecessary on these bikes, unless you enjoy aggravating non-riding (and riding) people and feel noise is a lifesaver. 

When the rest of the improvements are factored in, like the higher performance, the more efficient heat management brought by a lower 850 rpm idle and tighter rear exhaust routing, the significantly better suspension that improves both comfort and handling, and the easier reach to the ground allowed by the narrower engine, the only conclusion can be that Harley-Davidson did achieve its goal—more motorcyclists will now consider the Milwaukee brand and the loyal customer base will keep enjoying pretty much everything they already liked about The Motor Company, and then some.